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genetic modification of human embryos for research

The Science Media Centre asked scientists to respond to comments made by the pressure group Human Genetics Alert, which expressed concern over the creation of genetically modified human embryos for research purposes.

Dr Sophie Petit-Zeman, Director of Public Dialogue at the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), said:

“In suggesting that “the Government is taking the first step towards GM babies” HGA ignores stringent regulations that would prevent this , and the human health benefits that might be lost if research involving “altering the genetic structure of a cell while it forms part of an embryo” is outlawed. Of course such phrases raise concern when taken in isolation, but what we are talking about is essentially allowing scientists to use animal eggs as “shells” for human genetic material, often that taken from people with devastating illnesses. The resulting embryos would only be allowed to develop for just a few days as a source of stem cells from which more can be discovered about the cause, course and possible treatments for these conditions. It would help to get round the shortage of human eggs for research, and we have to listen to the calls of patients and their families who say we should support it. Emotive arguments against it may be based on unfounded fears , and could impede the momentum of scientists searching for causes of and cures for conditions affecting many millions of people in the UK.”

Professor John Burn, Medical Director, International Centre for Life, Newcastle, said:

“The key point is that regulatory bodies in the UK are keen not to obstruct reasonable research for health care. It is clear though that there is no provision for genetic modification in reproduction. In reproductive terms, if you wanted to change an egg to eliminate a genetic disease it would be hard to justify the risk of modifying the whole genome as opposed to simply screening embryos for the disease; this is much more straight forward and far safer. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to change the genes of an embryo to modify any characteristic of a baby in the foreseeable future.”

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, National Institute for Medical Research, said:

“Many thousands of experiments are done routinely throughout the world that involve genetic manipulation of human cells in culture, including human embryonic stem cells. I see no reason why doing the same with cells of a very early embryo also in culture should be thought to be any different. And why would the HGA, an organisation that is concerned with human genetics, be adverse to research conducted entirely in the laboratory that has the potential to help sufferers of genetic disease?

“The HGA are being misleading to suggest that the intention is to use the research towards making designer babies, and it is hard to see how the proposed changes in regulations would make this any more likely (it is already technically feasible to do this). Moreover, there is no Government proposal to alter the laws that make this illegal.”

James Lawford-Davies, medical legal lawyer, said:

“As the recent White Paper says, “altering the genetic structure of an embryo” has been hard to interpret and doesn’t really reflect the concerns held at the time the legislation was being debated. The 1987 White Paper strongly suggested that the intention of Parliament was to prevent modification of nuclear DNA with a view to creating babies with desired characteristics. There is no mention in that White Paper of any desire to restrict all modifications to genetic constitution. It seems sensible to clarify the phrasing in the new Act to permit regulated research and avoid further legal dispute over its proper interpretation.”

Alastair Kent, Director, Genetic Interest Group, said:

“Once again the Human Genetics Alert resorts to shroud waiving in its effort to hinder the progress of research into therapies for many currently lethal genetic diseases. The use of hybrid or genetically modified embryos is an area of research that patients and families want to see thoroughly explored. There is no slippery slope here as the implantation of any embryo, whether human or hybrid that has been used for research is already explicitly prohibited by law. The Human Genetics Commission (HGC) at its most recent meeting unanimously supported this research as scientifically justified and ethically sound, urging the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to issue licenses to allow it to proceed as soon as possible in order that its benefits are realised sooner.”

Dr Wolf Reik, Babraham Institute, Cambridge, said:

“I think they got their messages muddled up. A clear ban on reproductive cloning together with the ability to undertake cloning for research and eventual therapeutic purposes is the logical way forward. The White paper spells it out by saying that you cannot want to invest in future cures for disease and at the same time disallow work on some of the most promising technologies to achieve this end.”

Dr Simon Best, Chairman of the Bioindustry Association, said:

“Human Genetics Alert are misrepresenting the proposals in the White Paper and confusing issues. The ground-breaking medical research referred to in the White Paper would be conducted on a cluster of cells no bigger than a pin-head. Using these to produce babies is and should remain illegal.

“This research could help us to study intractable diseases such as Muscular Dystrophy, bringing hope to patients worldwide.”

Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research and Development for the Parkinson’s Disease Society, said:

“The Parkinson’s Disease Society firmly supports stem cell research, provided it is carried out within the UK’s strict ethical and regulatory framework.

“Stem cell research is an important area of study for people with a range of conditions, including Parkinson’s. Because stem cells are so versatile they could possibly be used to repair and renew cells in the body and brain, and therefore, potentially lead to a cure for conditions such as Parkinson’s.

“The Society is keen that all potential avenues for stem cell research, within the UK’s ethical and regulatory framework, are properly explored. Therapeutic cloning may help scientists build a better understanding of Parkinson’s that may, ultimately, lead to cell-based therapies for the condition.

“The Society urges the Government not to cut off a research channel that offers the 120,000 people with Parkinson’s in the UK significant – but as yet not fully explored – hope for the future.”

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